With the release of the film adaptation of A Walk in the Woods, we are treated to yet another story of a hapless seeker tromping into the wilderness for his own distinctive reasons. The latest entry in the round of these ‘inner/outer exploration’ films brings to life Bill Bryson’s tale of attempting to hike the Appalachian Trail.
In the wake of the popular hit book and movie WILD, comes another saga of two hapless rookies out to discover America and ‘find themselves’ as they amble down some forested path to salvation. Once again we endure the struggle of the heroes as they inevitably burden themselves with a heavy load of excess possessions, and unrealistic expectations as to what it really is like to hike dozens of miles, every day, for weeks and months at a time.
Does America really need another thru-hiker movie, elevating hiker trash to some sort of favored, almost coveted position? This one might be different. Instead of endless chapters of self-absorbed descriptions of pain, suffering and inward reflection, perhaps a trail writer might finally help us to look outside of ourselves in our journey, to learn what we can from the land, the people, and the experience.
In the hands of a master writer like Bill Bryson, this thru-hiker story takes on just such a flavor of adventure, along with a solid measure of wretched folly, to convey wonder of travel. Where Cheryl Strayed comes across as a rationalizing, narcissistic, walking pity party, Bryson is at once thoughtful, entertaining, informative and funny in his narrative. Sure, there is a healthy dose of the hapless hikers on parade here, but it gives the story its comedic sense, rather than a feeling of pathetic helplessness.
Insights on a Land
From the outset of the book, it is clear that Bryson first seeks to inform his readers, rather than to merely blather on in another overly personal self-indulgent rant. His background on the human and natural history of Appalachia is a precious window into America.
Bryson is part travel writer, part historian and part cultural critic. His insights on the history of the region, the trail, parks, trees and hiker community provide steady food for thought throughout the book. For example, of all the dangers associated with long-distance hiking, one of the biggest killers of outdoorsmen is hypothermia. An early symptom of the chilling condition is mental confusion, and Bryson describes his own brush with hypothermia.
As it was, I was in a state of mild distress. I was shivering foolishly and feeling oddly lightheaded. Presumably a confused person would be too addled to recognize that he was confused. If you know that you are not confused, then you are not confused. Unless, it suddenly occurred to me – and here was an arresting notion – unless persuading yourself that you are not confused is merely a cruel early symptom of confusion. For all I knew I could be stumbling into some kind of helpless preconfusional state, characterized by the fear on the part of the sufferer that he may be stumbling into some kind of helpless preconfusional state. That’s the trouble with losing your mind; by the time it’s gone, it’s too late to get it back.
Bryson’s subsequent battle with his wristwatch becomes a hilarious bookmark to the episode, in his stream of understated, but poignant humor.
A Principled Viewpoint
Many hiking writers seem to take a neutral stance to the trail; they just take it as it is, with little commentary on how the trail environment came to be. Bryson stakes out his credibility by taking a clear stand toward conservation and preservation of natural places. As he makes his way down the chain of mountains, he points out important, but often forgotten tragedies of human folly and environmental degradation from the history of the area. Hiking with Bryson makes the perspective of the past seem so much more relevant today.
Finally, and above all was the automobile. These majestic hotels were built on the assumption that visitors would come and stay for two weeks at least, but the car gave them a fickle mobility. America was entering the age not just of the automobile but of the retarded attention span.
It must be noted however that Bryson displays a measure of hypocrisy in pointing out the environmental transgressions of previous human activity in the Appalachians, while at the same time not recognizing his own impact, and especially that of his haggard hiking partner Katz. These guys apparently had not heard of the basic principles of leave-no-trace. A Walk in the Woods should not be taken as a guide for how to hike the AT, but as an eloquent and thoughtful insight to the story of land from the perspective of a sincere observer.
Throughout the story the reader really gets the feeling of Bryson’s appreciation of nature and his special relationship to it. He describes one encounter in the north woods with a large moose:
It is an extraordinary experience to find yourself face to face in the woods with a wild animal that is very much larger than you. We stared at each other for a good minute, neither of us sure what to do. There was a certain obvious and gratifying tang of adventure in this, but also something much more low-key and elemental – a kind of mutual respectful acknowledgement that comes with sustained eye contact. It was this that was unexpectedly thrilling – the sense that there was in some small measure a salute in our cautious appraisal.
A Walk in the Woods serves to educate as well as entertain. As Bryson and his spectacularly ragged buddy Katz make their way across the backbone of America, we see more than two middle-aged guys out on some impulsive and reckless amble through the wilderness. Bryson writes with a spirit of discovery, on a quest to absorb all that he encounters. Through the toil and sweat of hours of daily marching through miles through endless forests comes compelling insights of natural wonder, as well as of human grace and folly.
And for that, we can tolerate one more hiker story.